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article imageMacron set to stand firm in pension strike standoff

By Laurence BENHAMOU and Joseph SCHMID (AFP)     Dec 31, 2019 in World

French President Emmanuel Macron will address the nation Tuesday in a bid to win support for a pension overhaul that has prompted the biggest transport strike in decades, upending travel plans for thousands over the holidays.

The strike -- now the longest such transport stoppage since the mid 1980s -- is proving a key test of Macron's ability to implement his vow to reform France after coming to power in 2017.

Union leaders are demanding Macron drop his plan for a single points-based system and a "pivot age" of 64 to benefit from a full pension, above the official retirement age of 62.

But a presidential official told AFP that Macron, who has remained largely silent during the strike, will reaffirm his "determined ambition" for the reform during a televised address of some 15 minutes.

His speech will urge the French "to resist the temptation of inertia," the official said.

"We're not trying to create a conflict, we're trying to carry out a necessary reform," junior economy minister Anges Pannier-Runacher told France Inter radio on Tuesday.

Train services have been slashed because of the strike in France
Train services have been slashed because of the strike in France
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN, AFP/File

But Macron's call for a "Christmas truce" during the strike went unheeded, and unions have vowed not to back down ahead of renewed talks with the government set for January 7.

They have already called for another day of mass protests on January 9, when teachers, dockers, hospital workers and other public-sector employees will join the strike for the day.

Energy workers at the hard-line CGT union called Tuesday for a three-day blockade at the country's oil refineries and fuel depots starting January 7, raising the spectre of petrol shortages.

"This government isn't listening at all, we need to put more pressure on them," Thierry Defresne, a union official at French energy giant Total, told AFP.

- Damage control -

Macron's speech comes a year after his first major attempt at damage control, when he used the traditional New Year's address to announce 10 billion euros ($11.2 billion) in financial relief to try to quell the fiery "yellow vest" anti-government protests.

The concessions have galvanised union leaders to push back hard against the pension reforms, with a strike that is now in its 27th day.

Macron has vowed to reform the French economy
Macron has vowed to reform the French economy
Ludovic MARIN, AFP

They have already surpassed a landmark three-week strike in 1995 that forced the government at the time to back down on its pension overhaul.

The strike is now on course to exceed the longest transport strike in France, which lasted for 28 days in 1986 and early 1987.

Support for the strike appears to be abating, with just 7.7 percent of employees at train operator SNCF on strike Tuesday, far below the levels seen when the protest began on December 5.

Just half of high-speed TGV trains were running and regional services remain severely disrupted, and most Paris metro lines shut or providing only minimal service.

Paris Opera dancers  meanwhile  were told over the weekend that the reform would apply only to new r...
Paris Opera dancers, meanwhile, were told over the weekend that the reform would apply only to new recruits from January 2022
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN, AFP

The RATP, which operates the Paris metro system, launched an investigation after an outcry over footage going viral on social media showing a female driver being harassed and booed as she defied a strike to start work on Monday.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to descend on Paris' Champs-Elysees avenue for the traditional New Year's Eve fireworks.

But all the city's metro lines will stop at 6:30 pm (1730 GMT), except for two automated lines that will run until around 2:00 am.

Authorities have outlawed any "yellow vest" protests on the famed avenue for Tuesday night, and nearly 100,000 police officers will be on duty nationwide to try to prevent outbreaks of violence.

- Exceptions -

The government has already conceded that some workers, like police and firefighters, would still be able to have early retirements under their "special regimes," a system of legacy plans to compensate for especially strenuous jobs.

Paris Opera dancers, meanwhile, were told over the weekend that the reform would apply only to new recruits from January 2022.

But Macron's goal is to do away with the country's 42 separate pension systems in favour of a single system that he says is more transparent and fairer, in particular to women and low earners.

But unions say the reform could force millions in both the public and private sectors to work longer than expected, or face curtailed pension benefits.

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